The first kid you see in Elephant is headed to school. John (John Robinson) is riding uneasily with his drunken dad (Timothy Bottoms), the car weaving down a suburban street. The sun shines. The car nearly hits a mailbox. And John, sighing at the routine, has had enough. “I’ll drive,” he announces, as the car pulls to a lurchy stop. Dad is dazed, vaguely flummoxed: “What’s the big deal?”
The deal, of course, is John’s frustration, which he’s to doing his best to ignore. By the time his father is wondering out loud if maybe John wants to go hunting with him this weekend, you’re likely thinking that this kid, so polite and so put upon, is the shooter. This is because you know going in that Gus Van Sant’s remarkable movie, winner of Cannes’ Palme d’Or and Best Director prize, is about “Columbine.” Along with Paul Ryan’s Home Room and Ben Coccio’s Zero Day, Elephant takes up the events and effects of that terrible day when two boys carried assault weapons into their high school’s hallways, taking deadly aim at startled fellow students and teachers.
But John will not be a shooter. Rather, he’ll be one of several students Elephant follows through the day. After John, the camera picks up Elias (Elias McConnell), who’s strolling school-ward with camera in hand, taking photos of kids he happens upon. He explains to one gothy couple that he’s “developing his portfolio… portraits mainly,” assuming a future that he can have no idea will be disrupted this afternoon. They lean into one another, posing, as Eli suggests, “Be a little happier.” Right. It’s funny, almost. They are happy, probably. But you won’t see them again, so you can’t know. They shuffle off through the dry leaves underfoot. They’re young, they’ve got stuff to do, even if you’ll never know what it is.
At school, Eli tends to his work in the dark room, encouraging another young artist, while other students go about their business. An obvious golden couple makes arrangements for the evening’s activities, conferring about kegs and whom to invite; Michelle (Kristen Hicks), embarrassed by her apparent bodily imperfections (this being high school, all such stakes are too high), sits on a bench in the locker room, as girls behind her giggle and comment: the camera gradually approaches and circles Michelle’s face, etching her pain into the very air; a trio of apparently perfect girls (Brittany Mountain, Jordan Taylor, Nicole George) sit in the cafeteria, where they chat about shopping and loyalty, eat a few chips, then head to their appointed bathroom stalls, where they vomit and flush in unison; and the Gay/Straight Alliance discusses how you read “gayness,” as the camera slowly circles the room, revealing the difficulty of just such reading.
The utter lack of urgency in these diurnal rhythms resonates throughout Elephant. For while the kids make dates and plans, you know, moment by moment, that catastrophe is imminent. Those coming to this film in search of “answers,” or any sort of sustained argument as to why such violence occurred will leave wanting. It offers no explanations. When you do see the killers to be, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), they don’t look like monsters. They look like anyone else in this Portland, Oregon high school. They just happen to be wearing fatigues and carrying guns with sacks of grenades and ammunition. From here, the film cuts back and forth in time, showing Alex and Eric at home, watching a Nazi rally in some tv documentary, awaiting the arrival of their mail-order weapons, and playing a video game that looks a lot like Van Sant’s last film, Gerry, as well as “Für Elise” on the piano.
Van Sant says the film’s title references Alan Clarke’s 1989 BBC film of the same name, about violence in Northern Ireland, specifically, the “metaphorical elephant in the room no one wanted to recognize.” The question is, what is there to recognize? What’s at stake in not recognizing (or not wanting to recognize), and for whom? When people looked back on Columbine, fingers pointed every whichway, at Marilyn Manson and “Doom,” at satanic rituals and websites. Some folks noted that the boys were bullied (and here Alex suffers a spitball assault in biology class, and they lounge at home watching Nazi rally footage on tv, imagining the sense of power such seeming “solidarity” conjures). Before the shootings, however, no one was looking.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that shortly after Elephant‘s initial limited release in the States, Columbine authorities released a long sat-on videotape of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with a couple of friends, target-practicing off in the woods. Laughing and fooling around, they look like other kids. Except, of course, you know more about them now than they did when they made the tape, and what you know makes the tape chilling, obvious, dire.
Elephant never forgets that its shooters, Alex and Eric, also look like other kids. It doesn’t demonize them, but instead, watches, alternately patient and tense. Frustrated and unhappy, ignored by most adults and abused by their peers, the boys seek connections while living in a culture where guns and vengeance narratives are not just normal, but also vaunted. Just before they costume themselves for the assault, they shower and go on to have sex, the stall peeped through a doorframe, pushed against the frame’s edge. The scene might strike viewers several ways, not least being the potential charge that the kids are “gay,” a seeming symptom of their deviance. But this is too easy, and Elephant is never easy. Rather, the little bit of fear and desire evinced in their brief dialogue (“I’ve never even kissed anyone”) suggests, gently, that they are confused and sad, seeking only to have sex before the death they know is coming.
Equally cryptic and intelligent is a character who shows up late, during the shooting spree, Benny (Bennie Dixon). The only black kid with lines, he walks through the school’s hallways, not running from the sounds of gunfire and explosions, but toward them, as if he will rescue someone (and he does do that, sort of, helping a panicked girl out a ground floor window). When he does come on one of the shooters, however, the adventure you might have been hoping for — hoping against hope, perhaps, thinking for a minute the film might turn into something it isn’t — can’t emerge. And so the incoherent, unreasonable, and unfathomable violence continues. Elephant doesn’t explain and it does not back down. It does ask you to look.